In the center of the state of Georgia lies a town called Perry, which is home to the Georgia National Fairgrounds and Agricenter. In the center of the fairgrounds lies Reaves Arena. And in the center of the arena, on center court at the 1995 World Horseshoe Pitching Championships last August, Walter Ray Williams Jr. was the center of attention.
On the final day of competition the two-time Professional Bowlers Association Player of the Year and six-time world horseshoe-pitching champion peered over the 2½-pound horseshoe in his right hand at a 14-inch metal stake 40 feet away. He started his arm swing and then released the shoe, watching it do a 1¾ turn and land in the pit with a loud clang.
Ringer. Game over.
Williams had beaten Rick Cale of Masontown, W.Va., 41-9 to put himself in first place halfway through the day. "Oh, well," said one resigned spectator. "Looks like ol' Walter Ray's gonna win another one."
Williams is so good at horseshoes that the prospect of his seventh world title elicited nothing more than a yawn and a shrug from most of the tournament's 3,200 spectators. But while the 36-year-old native of California—who happens to be a dead ringer for former major league pitcher Rick Sutcliffe—may not be Neon Deion, he is no Gray Walter Ray either.
When not competing, he is quiet, even subdued. On the horseshoe court or the bowling lanes, though, he becomes downright demonstrative. While most of his opponents react impassively when a sure ringer bounces off the stake, Williams cringes, mutters to himself, throws his arms in the air and looks skyward for help. After losing a match he has also been known to refuse to shake hands with an opponent, which is considered to be about the most deplorable thing a horseshoe player can do.
Bowling fans eat up Williams's emotional displays. He is one of the most popular PBA players, not to mention one of 16 career millionaires on the circuit. But to horseshoe fans he is more like John McEnroe, Reggie Jackson or Wilt Chamberlain. "People love to love him and love to hate him," says 1992 world champion Kevin Cone.
Indeed, on the rare occasions when Williams loses, the applause becomes even louder. "I'm not as bad as I used to be, and I probably know how to play to a crowd better now, but it bewilders me," Williams admits. "I guess I'm more of a jerk than I think I am." Of course, when the applause grows louder, it may just be a show of appreciation. After all, when you outpitch Williams, you have bettered the best.
Williams began pitching shoes in 1969, at the age of nine. Within a year he was good enough to toss 45 ringers out of 50 shoes in one round of the junior world championship, and he earned the nickname Dead-Eye. The following year, upon becoming the youngest junior world champion ever, Williams appeared in SI's FACES IN run CROWD and on The Dick Cavett Show. He repeated as junior champ in '72 and '75.
By then the whole Williams clan had developed the itch to pitch. Dad (Ray) and Mom (Esther) would eventually receive achievement awards from the National Horseshoe Pitching Association; little brother Jeff would twice win the world junior championship; and youngest brother Nathan would win six Arizona state titles. But Walter Ray Jr. was still the one to beat.